Cowboys & Aliens has about the simplest and most descriptive title that I can think of. It’s simple because it uses only a couple of easy words, while it’s an apt descriptor because it tells you exactly what the film is about. There’s no mystery here, which is probably a good thing, as any confusion probably would have hurt the final product. Now, if only that final product would have been good. We might have had some fun if that was the case.
The film opens with a jump scene in which an amnesiac, unnamed man (Daniel Craig), awakens in the middle of a desert. He notices that there’s a strange metallic device hardwired to his wrist, but can’t get it off. Those of you who have seen the trailers know that it’s a futuristic weapon that can shoot lasers. In a time when everyone else is using revolvers, this will prove pivotal. He heads into town, meets the rest of the people who will eventually become important, and then bears witness to an alien invasion. The rest of the film involves the titular cowboys trying to locate and then kill the titular aliens.
Why are the cowboys dead-set on killing the aliens? Well, during the initial invasions, some of their friends and family were captured. So, it kind of makes sense that they’d like to rescue the people they care about, I suppose. Oh, and the aliens also want all of their gold, not that this matters at all. I guess it’s just to give the aliens a reason to be on Earth in the first place, as if they didn’t have one, we might question why they’re here in the first place like in so many other alien invasion flicks.
I laughed at the title and the trailer for this movie, but I didn’t laugh while it was playing, which to me says that director Jon Fraveau and his team — seriously, just look at the names of the guys who produced this thing and be amazed — did their job in some regards. This is a silly premise, has some silly moments, but on the whole is pretty serious. It never gets so bad or self-referential to take you out of its world, and I ended up buying into the attempt by the cowboys to stop an alien invasion. It’s only now that I laugh at how ridiculous it is.
The main problem, however, are the jarring shifts in tone that happen from scene to scene. This isn’t even just an issue with each scene — some are trying for old-school Western, others for horror, and others for action — but with the characters as well. The biggest perpetrator is Harrison Ford’s grizzled cattleman, who begins the film seeming like he’ll need a lot to come around, but then flip-flops between being soft and mean whenever the filmmakers feel like it.
The other, probably more important problem for anyone actually wanting to see a movie titled “Cowboys & Aliens” is that it’s simply not a whole lot of fun. Even with the uneven tone, some of these action scenes could have been a lot of fun. I mean, we have James Bond and Indiana Jones in the same action movie, and I still wasn’t having a good time. It’s just boring, routine, cliché, or any other words you want to throw in there that tell someone that you’ve seen it all before. And in this case, you really have seen it all before.
Even the aliens are uninspired looking. Take the xenomorphs from the Alien franchise, make them look far less dangerous, and you have a pretty good idea of what these ones are like. There’s a weak point — for no real reason, as it only comes into play a couple of times — arms come out of its stomach, and I was yawning as the aliens tried to make a couple of jump scenes work. The only one of those that was effective was the one in the very first scene.
It also doesn’t help that nobody seems to be having a ton of fun. Harrison Ford, in the scenes where he’s happy to be in a fight — and not the downer like he is some of the time — is the only one with a smile on his face. Everyone else looks so sad, like they’ve already given into the idea that their family and friends are all alien aliment. They’re going to war, sure, but if they’ve already accepted the inevitable, why should we root for them? I would have liked some humor thrown in, or at least some smiles.
The story also fails to really connect, in large part because it’s built around Craig’s character’s amnesia … before forgetting about that completely and making him a generic action star. The twists in the story are uninteresting and predictable, the plot itself is recycled from a dozen other movies, and there’s nothing to really excite or enthrall. The baddies are bad for the sake of being bad, the characters don’t develop or even stay consistent in their arcs, and it all winds up being a familiar mess.
Cowboys & Aliens will please those of you who say things like “just turn your brain off and have fun.” Because, really, my brain was trying to keep a tally of how many other movies I would rather be watching with one of the two characters of the title. The list was large. There isn’t a lot of fun to be had here, and when your title and premise are both so simple and silly that it’s hard not to laugh, fun is the most important element. It’s all too routine and familiar to enjoy, and there’s no joy both inside the screen, or outside it.